“Wrestling With God”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 20, 2019
Genesis 32:3-6, 24-31
I feel blessed and incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I received a good and faithful and loving upbringing in the Church. As you know, I was raised in the Episcopal church, baptized at a month old and confirmed just as I was entering middle school. In the church of my growing-up years, I learned about faith, mystery, beauty, community, and most importantly for me, music. It was in the church where I was baptized that I was first exposed to the ancient music traditions of the church and it is there that I fell in love with the sound and the complexity of the pipe organ. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the organ bench next to the church’s organist, playing hymn melodies a few octaves higher from where his hands were. On Saturdays I would go with my mom to the church to prepare communion and make sure everything was perfect and in order for the next day’s services. I would even help her wash the communion linens, by hand, in a bright white marble sink behind the sanctuary. I thank God every day for my upbringing in the church, especially because such wonderful formation is not something that everyone experiences.
Now, as is often the case, I began to drift away from the church towards the end of middle school and into my early high school years. I was in the thick of my training as a pianist and organist, and there were other things that caught my attention—friends, dating, driving. Slowly over time, church became less and less important for me, and soon I was going weeks and even months without darkening the doors of the church. This trend continued after I graduated from high school and through most of my college career. It was by sheer coincidence that I landed back in a church my senior year in college and that was simply because I needed a job and I heard of a church looking to hire an organist. But even when I was working in the church, I was not really interested in church. I was especially not interested in Bible study or prayer groups or in spending time thinking about what God was leading me to do with my life.
Looking back, my drift away from the church had nothing to do with the church being boring or hurtful or painful. During those formative years of high school and college where every person is learning who they are and about the world around them, I had bags and bags and bags of questions and the church of my upbringing was not a place where I felt comfortable bringing those questions. Of course, we could ask questions and we were encouraged to ask questions, but I can’t remember a single time in those early years where questions were truly heard or allowed to hang in the air unanswered. However, I do remember that questions were very quickly and definitively answered, in such a way that you might be scared to ask anything else. My drift from the church is, in part, due to the fact that it was not a place where I felt I could honestly work out my faith and spirituality or wrestle honestly with God.
That is until God set in motion a chain events where I found myself very quickly and deeply involved in a Presbyterian church. After about a year of working as an organist, a church close to where I was living approached me to work for them. The pay was double and the commute was all of five minutes. At that point in my life, that was all I needed, so I gave a month’s notice. The transition was easy, but within a few months of working at the Presbyterian church, I knew something more was happening. It very quickly began to feel like home. I felt comfortable and peaceful there when so much of what I wanted and needed to know was making me restless. The worship, the music, and the fellowship was speaking to me when I hadn’t heard much from the church or from God for quite some time. In God’s goodness, this job was turning into my reentry into the church.
On a whim, I joined a young adult Bible study at the church and from the moment the first class began, I was hooked. Here was a group of young people wrestling with the same questions that had been slowly chewing on my mind for years. Here was a group of young people saying things like, “I don’t know,” and, “I wonder,” and, “What if?” Here was a group of young people, some in college and some already starting their careers, making time for God and making time to listen to and understand what God might be saying to them. This was also a group of people who could say without fear or shame that they hadn’t really heard much from God before. That was me. I always knew God, but I didn’t have a burning bush moment like Moses. I was home in this place because I could ask and wrestle and wonder and the Presbyterian church has been my home ever since.
Presbyterians are distinct within the Christian family because, among other things, we believe that asking questions, seeking wisdom and understanding, and wrestling with God is an act faithfulness and trust and not a sign of weakness. We have developed this belief over the years through stories in the Bible like Jacob wrestling with a man by the river Jabok. We learn later in the story that the man was an angel, a messenger from God, so Jacob literally wrestled with God that night. At this moment, Jacob is at a turning point in his life. He has been a liar and a cheat since the beginning and he is about to meet his end at the hand of his brother from whom he stole a huge inheritance. Jacob must decide whether he will continue as a liar and a cheat or if he will turn and go a different way. From the beginning, Presbyterians have understood this story to mean that when it comes to life’s most important moments, wrestling with God can and will turn us in the right direction.
And so, since our birth during the Reformation in the 16th century, we have been a branch in the Christian family tree that encourages, honors, and respects wrestling with God. We live in this way because we are confident that God is able and willing to hear and be the subject of our questions. To be certain, answers are not always the result of our questions to and about God. But the story of Jacob teaches us that when we wrestle with God, we go away changed. Jacob had a limp and a new name after wrestling with God. We might not get answers, but we will be different when the match is over. Jacob was different after he wrestled with God, literally reformed into a kind, generous, and faithful servant of God. Wrestling with God forms us into more kind, more generous, more faithful people of God.
I’ve seen this so clearly in my life as I have struggled with mental illness. It was in seminary that I first began to struggle with depression and anxiety on a level that was so much bigger than feeling sad or worried. There were days, and sometimes weeks, where I walked through life like a zombie—not really alive and not really dead. There were times when my life was nearly perfect, yet I could not get myself out of bed. There were times when I was so worried about things that I was literally paralyzed and unable to move. And in these terrible, deadly moments, I had a lot to say to God. How can a good and gracious God create people whose bodies on certain days don’t produce the right chemicals to survive? How can a good and gracious God allow his beloved people to suffer in the way I was suffering? How can a good and gracious and just God exist, and how can a church that claims these things about God exist, in a world of so much pain and randomness and suffering?
I’ve never gotten an answer. I’ve never heard God speak to my questions. But I’ve been led to professionals who have helped me care for myself when things are bad. I’ve been led to communities who are doing good things in the midst of their suffering and pain. I’ve often limped into wisdom and understanding, because the truth of faith and life is that we will never fully know. We will never fully know God. We will never fully know the meaning of life. We will never be able to fully comprehend everything that happens around us. Our minds are simply not built to take in all of that information. But by God’s grace, we can learn from our experiences and our joys and our troubles. By God’s grace, we can make meaning from the difficult and painful moments in life. By God’s grace we can wrestle with God, we can press God with these questions, and by God’s grace we will go away changed, different, maybe with a limp and maybe with a new name.
So, my friends, the exceedingly good news today is that wrestling with God is an important and necessary component of faith. God can take our questions and God welcomes our questions, our concerns, our joy and sorrows, our desire to understand and become wise. This also comes to us as a challenge, to never give up trying to better understand God, the world we live in, the faith we claim. It has been said that the opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is certainty. As soon as we become certain about God, as soon as we become certain about faith, as soon as we become certain about the church and about ministry and about grace and love, we have moved away from God and not closer. The more we ask, the more we wrestle, the more we seek and knock, the more we will find, the wider the door will open, the more we will receive from God’s generous and compassionate hands. And the more we wrestle the closer we come to God and I can’t think of anything better than being close to God.
Wrestle with God and do it boldly. And you’ll never be the same again. Amen.